ECHELON -- The Spy System That Knows Everything

ECHELON – The Spy System That Knows Everything

Few people are aware of the existence of a massive, clandestine spy network (or signals intelligence collection system), shared by five western nations, that is capable of intercepting and inspecting the content of all telephone calls, fax transmissions, text messages, teletext messages, emails, and other forms of electronic communications sent across the world. This system was first exposed by journalist Duncan Campbell (writing for the “New Statesman”) in August 1988. A detailed description of this system was provided by Nicky Hager (an investigative journalist who lives and works in New Zealand) in his book “Secret Power”, published in 1996. Much of the information discussed in this article was derived from these sources; in the intervening years, there have been significant improvements in computer technology, including the development of reliable and high speed voice-recognition software, and the launch of numerous spy satellites that were not in existence when Campbell and Hager published their accounts. Indeed, many of the most significant advances in computer technology have occurred since the turn of the century.

The ECHELON system is capable of intercepting satellite transmissions, transmissions on the public switched telephone network (PSTN) (which carries most Internet traffic), and transmissions carried by microwave links. The PSTN is the network of the world’s public circuit-switched telephone networks (in much the same way that the Internet is the network of the world’s public IP-based packet-switched networks). The PSTN is now almost entirely digital, and includes both mobile and landline telephones (it was originally a network of fixed-line analogue telephone systems).

The system described in this article is named ECHELON; it is shared by and operated on behalf of the five signatory states to the UKUSA Security Agreement of 1948. These nations are the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand (known collectively as AUSCANZUKUS). ECHELON is actually the code name for that portion of the system that intercepts satellite-based communications; however, most references to ECHELON are references to the signals intelligence collection system mentioned and described in this article. This system has also been referred to as Project P415. The stated purpose of the UKUSA treaty was to create a single vast global intelligence organization sharing a common agenda and common goals.

One ECHELON intercept station is located at Menwith Hill, near Harrogate in the North York moors in the UK. This station taps into all of the UK’s national and international communications networks. Although this station is not supposed to intercept or listen to domestic calls, it certainly has the capability of being turned inwards on domestic traffic.

Each of the above five nations has its own signals intelligence agency. ECHELON allows these agencies to function as one integrated unit, for the collection and analysis of signals intelligence information from all over the world.

In the USA, the National Security Agency (NSA) head office is located at Fort Meade, Maryland. The NSA is administered as part of the US Department of Defense. Back in the days of the Cold War, the US government officially denied the very existence of the NSA, leading Washington insiders to joke that the acronym NSA stood for “No Such Agency”. In reality, the NSA was created on November 4, 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. The NSA has two broad areas of responsibility. The first is the collection and analysis of non-US (foreign) communications and signals intelligence (SIGINT), which involves cryptanalysis. The second is the protection of US government communications and information systems from similar agencies elsewhere, which involves cryptography. The NSA’s work is limited to communications intelligence; it does not perform field, or human intelligence (HUMINT) activities.

A co-located agency named the Central Security Service (CSS) coordinates intelligence activities and co-operation between the NSA and the US military’s cryptanalysis agencies.

In theory, the NSA cannot conduct surveillance against US citizens, either within the USA or outside the USA. United States Signals Intelligence Directive 18 (USSID 18) strictly prohibits the interception or collection of information about US citizens, corporations, or entities without the explicit written permission of the US Attorney General (when the subject is located outside the USA) or the explicit legal permission of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court (when the subject is located within the USA). Furthermore, the US Supreme Court has ruled that US intelligence agencies may not conduct surveillance against US citizens.

(This commentator worked with a former NSA agent in 2006; the former agent reported that his staff were under specific and unambiguous instructions never to turn the NSA's resources inwards, onto the American people; the former agent expressed his disgust and revulsion in the face of the Bush Administration's wholesale sacking of this principle.)

However, there is no prohibition against the intelligence agency of one nation sharing the results of its surveillance of citizens of another nation with the intelligence agency of that other nation; thus, the five nations that are signatories to the UKUSA Security Agreement may well perform each other’s surveillance, and share the results. The NSA would remain in compliance with the letter of the law were it to do this, but such activity would certainly violate the spirit of the law.

The agencies responsible for these activities have relatively obscure names and maintain low profiles.

In the UK, the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) is the intelligence agency responsible for signals intelligence to the UK government and armed forces. The GCHQ is the responsibility of the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; its director ranks as a permanent secretary. The GCHQ was preceded by the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), which was based at Bletchley Park during World War II. The mathematicians at Bletchley Park (e.g. Alan Turing) were responsible for cracking the German ENIGMA code; their success was instrumental in winning the war.

In Canada, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is the Canadian government’s cryptologic intelligence agency. The CSEC is administered by the Department of National Defense; it keeps track of foreign signals intelligence, and protects Canadian government electronic information and communication networks.

In Australia, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) is the Australian government intelligence agency responsible for signals intelligence and information security.

In New Zealand, the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is the primary intelligence agency of the New Zealand government. New Zealand joined ECHELON in the late 1980s.

The capabilities and political implications of ECHELON were investigated by a Committee of the European Parliament during 2000 and 2001, and a report was published in 2001. The author James Bamford has written extensively about ECHELON and the NSA.

Uniformity of operations allows NSA agents from Fort Meade to intercept local communications from Menwith Hill without formal authorization, approval, or disclosure from either the UK or the USA. This permits the NSA to engage in real-time intelligence gathering, analysis, and decision making.

Under the terms of the UKUSA agreement, the GCHQ at Cheltenham is the co-ordinating center for Europe, Africa, and what used to be the Soviet Union (west of the Ural Mountains). The NSA covers North America, South America, and the remainder of what used to be the Soviet Union. Australia and New Zealand co-ordinate the electronic monitoring of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

According to Campbell, the NSA has definitely been targeting domestic telephone calls. In July 1988, the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” reported that the NSA had targeted the telephone calls of US Senator Strom Thurmond (a right-wing Republican). This raised concerns that the NSA had restored its domestic electronic surveillance programs, which had been exposed and condemned during the Watergate investigations (President Carter subsequently ordered the closure of all such programs). Margaret Newsham, a former employee of Lockheed Missiles and Space Division, filed a lawsuit concerning corruption and misspending by other US “black ops” programs. Newsham also confirmed that the Thurmond interception took place at Menwith Hill, where she had been working, and that she personally had heard the call and was able to recount details. It was at this point that Newsham regretted her involvement in ECHELON. She no longer works for Lockheed, and now resides in Las Vegas. However, she now lives in fear, with a loaded gun under her bed, concerned that certain factions within the NSA and the CIA may attempt to silence her for her role in ECHELON and her knowledge of this system. Newsham had one of the highest security clearances in existence, requiring the approval of the CIA, the NSA, the Navy, and the Air Force. This clearance also requires a polygraph (lie detector test) and an expanded personal history test, in which her family and acquaintances were checked by the NSA.

In 1983, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered that two of her ministers be placed under electronic surveillance. Thatcher was displeased with these ministers for challenging her on unidentified policy matters. Because it is illegal for British intelligence to spy on its own citizens, the operation was handed over to the CSE in Canada. Details pertaining to this operation were released by former CSE spy Mike Frost, who stated that Thatcher "had two ministers that she said ‘…weren’t onside.’” Thatcher, recounted Frost, “wanted to find out, not what these ministers were saying, but what they were thinking. So my boss, as a matter of fact, went to McDonald House in London and did intercept traffic from these two ministers.” Why did Thatcher use the CSE and not British intelligence? Because for the British intelligence authorities to monitor their own government members would have been illegal; instead, they asked their allies in Canada to perform these activities. “The British Parliament now have total deniability,” Frost says. “They didn’t do anything. They know nothing about it. Of course they didn’t do anything; we did it for them.” Frost further stated that there was no way to assign blame or to pin criminal charges on anyone in the British government.

In 1989, the NSA acknowledged that the US government possessed 1,056 pages of classified intelligence pertaining to Britain’s Princess Diana. British tabloids portrayed the documents as rife with salacious information about Diana’s most intimate love secrets (about her relationship with Egyptian billionaire Dodi al-Fayed). The NSA denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Internet news service “APB Online”, in which this news service sought documentation from the NSA pertaining to information that it had collected about Diana. The NSA admitted to possessing a “Diana file”, but refused to divulge the contents of that file, even in the face of a properly-filed FOIA request. A US intelligence official claimed that the file consists of conversations between people who mentioned Diana, and that the references to Diana were “incidental”. However, the NSA classified 124 pages (of the total of 1,056 pages) top secret “because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security”. What “incidental” references to Diana, by people who talked about her, could possibly cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if released into the public domain? John Pike, a scientist working for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), stated that the NSA and other US intelligence agencies may have been monitoring Diana to protect her from terrorist attacks; it was also possible that Diana may have been monitored because of her involvement in banning land mines, a position opposed by the Pentagon.

The European Parliament reported (in 2001) that the NSA routinely monitors virtually “all e-mail, telephone and fax communications… within Europe”.

The Menwith Hill station is undoubtedly the largest and most powerful station in the ECHELON network. This station has at least 22 satellite terminals and almost five acres of buildings. After the Gulf War, this station received the NSA’s “Station of the Year” prize for 1991.

In May 2006, the newspaper “USA Today” released details of a Bush-approved project in which the NSA constructed what it boasted was the biggest database ever created, containing telephone calling details of literally millions of innocent American civilians. A political firestorm erupted in the face of this disclosure. Several of the major telephone companies (including AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth) were complicit in the creation of this database, turning details of the calling patterns of their subscribers over to the NSA without obtaining permission from the subscribers (or even notifying them after the fact); furthermore, the NSA did not have a warrant from a FISA court authorizing the seizure of these records, as was required by law. One source stated that the NSA database was "the largest database ever assembled in the world”, and that the Agency’s goal was “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders (sources would only speak out on condition of anonymity).

Only one telephone company – Qwest – refused to turn over customer calling records. Joseph Nacchio – Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Qwest Communications International – was subsequently charged with insider trading of Qwest stock, and was convicted on April 19, 2007. His indictment and prosecution were widely viewed as US government retaliation for his refusal to turn over customer calling records to the NSA.

On March 17, 2008, Nacchio's conviction was overturned by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and he was ordered retried before a different federal district judge. The three-judge panel that threw out his conviction held that the district court had improperly prevented an expert witness, Professor Daniel Fischel, from offering testimony that would have exculpated Nacchio. However, the full Tenth Circuit voted to rehear the case en banc, and the decision overturning his conviction was set aside. On February 26, 2009 Nacchio lost before the en banc panel by a five to four vote; the en banc panel held that the district court had behaved correctly in preventing Professor Fischel from testifying.

The four dissenting judges on the en banc panel issued three separate, strongly-worded, angry dissents, the last of which all but invited Nacchio to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. sec. 2255, opining that the majority opinion’s scenario necessarily depends on a holding to the effect that defense counsel’s performance was grossly inadequate, possibly to the extent necessary to satisfy the two-part test articulated by the US Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) (demonstration of ineffective assistance of counsel, and a showing that the deficiency prejudiced the outcome of the trial).

Nacchio was ordered to begin serving a six-year prison term immediately. He is now a prisoner at a minimum-security prison camp located at the Schuylkill Federal Correctional Institution in Minersville, Pennsylvania (prisoner register number 33973-013). His legal team is now petitioning the US Supreme Court for review of his case.

The unusual procedural history of this case, and the harsh prison term handed out to Nacchio, has generated considerable controversy.

U.S. Senator Frank Church chaired the Church Committees, which conducted extensive hearings investigating possibly illegal FBI and CIA abuses of intelligence-gathering and covert operations in the 1970s and 1980s. Church pointedly observed that: "If this government ever became a tyranny ... the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government ... is within the reach of the government to know".

ECHELON was designed and coordinated by the NSA. Unlike the vast majority of intelligence-gathering and electronic spy systems developed during the Cold War, ECHELON was designed primarily for non-military targets: governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in virtually every country in the world. If you send and receive emails for personal and business purposes, it is almost certain that these emails are intercepted and run through ECHELON. This system works by indiscriminately intercepting very large quantities of communications and using computer algorithms to identify and extract messages of interest from the torrent of unwanted messages. A chain of secret interception facilities, located all over the world, tap into all major components of the international telecommunications networks. Some facilities monitor communication satellites; others monitor land-based communication networks; and others monitor radio communications. ECHELON links all of these facilities together, allowing the US and its allies to intercept and monitor almost all electronic communications on the planet, as and when they occur. This is known as real-time processing; messages are analyzed as and when they flow through the communications network.

Computers capable of searching through communications traffic and identifying those messages containing key words and phrases have existed since at least the 1970s, but prior to the inception of ECHELON, these computers worked independency and were not integrated or interconnected. The ECHELON system was designed by the NSA to interconnect many independent computers and to permit these computers to function as components of an integrated, world-wide surveillance system. When the UKUSA Security Agreement was ratified, these efforts were largely targeted against the Soviet Union (USSR).

The computers located at stations all over the world are referred to as ECHELON Dictionaries. These computers are loaded with files containing key words. Messages in the data stream (or intercept) are scanned for the occurrence of these key words, and those messages which are flagged by the system are diverted for further processing. An ECHELON Dictionary for a given nation does not only contain key words pertaining to that nation’s intelligence-gathering efforts; the Dictionary also contains lists of key words pertaining to the intelligence-gathering efforts of the other four nations within the UKUSA agreement. An incoming message is scanned for occurrences of any of the key words on any of the lists for the different nations. If a message contains a key word on the list provided by a given nation’s agency, the message is automatically flagged and sent directly to the headquarters of the agency in question. For example, New Zealand’s satellite interception station located at Waihopai (in the South Island) has separate search lists for the NSA, GCHQ, DSD, and CSE, in addition to the search list for the GCSB. Whenever this computer encounters a message containing a key word on the NSA search list, it automatically diverts that message to the NSA’s headquarters in Maryland.

The Dictionary computers are connected to the headquarters of the five nations by highly encrypted UKUSA communications. Encryption refers to the process of converting a string of text in the original language (plaintext) to a string of data that is unintelligible to any person or entity that may be listening to the communications (ciphertext). The ciphertext can only be understood after it has been “unscrambled” by the recipient. The sender and the recipient agree in advance on an algorithm that “scrambles” (encrypts) the plaintext; only when the recipient manipulates the ciphertext (effectively reversing the steps taken in “scrambling” the plaintext) does the ciphertext revert to intelligible plaintext.

All messages intercepted and flagged by the Dictionary computers are sent to the headquarters of the agency on whose list of keywords the message was flagged. Signals intelligence analysts who have been carefully vetted and indoctrinated by their agencies are assigned the task of processing each day’s intercepts. These analysts log on to their computers at agency headquarters in Washington, Ottawa, Cheltenham, Canberra, and Wellington every morning and enter the Dictionary system. They reach a directory that lists the different categories of intercept stored in the databases; each category is referenced by a four-digit code. For example, 1911 may refer to Japanese diplomatic cables from Latin America (processed by the Canadian CSE), whereas 3848 may refer to political communications to and from Nigeria, whereas 8182 may refer to any messages that pertain to the distribution of encryption technology.

Each agency creates and maintains its own categories of intelligence, to be assigned four-digit numbers and tracked. The agencies decide what to track based on their responsibility for generating intelligence for the network. For New Zealand (GCSB), this means tracking should include South Pacific governments, Russian Antarctic activities, Japanese diplomatic communications, etc. The agency then generates 10 to 50 key words for selection within each category – these may include the names of ships, the names of people, the names of organizations, house and apartment numbers, and specific verbs and nouns associated with that issue. The agencies may combine key words so as to select only those communications that are relevant; for example, the NSA may combine “President” and “North Korea” in the weeks prior to a summit in North Korea to identify messages pertaining to the President’s upcoming visit to that country. These key words and combinations are loaded into the Dictionary computers. Staff members referred to as “Dictionary Managers” are responsible for updating and maintaining the lists of key words and combinations of key words that are loaded into the Dictionary computers.

The system was devised by the NSA but has been adopted without changes by the other four agencies comprising ECHELON.

When a message is selected, the Dictionary computer automatically notes technical details such as the time and place of intercept, and writes the four-digit code associated with that category of intercept at the bottom of the message’s text. This is very important – after the messages have been intercepted, all of the messages pertaining to a particular subject can be retrieved from the database simply by searching the database for all messages tagged with the four-digit code associated with that subject.

The flow of data is strictly controlled. A given agency (e.g. the DSD in Canberra) can only retrieve from the database information pertaining to its own numbers (the four-digit numbers associated with the different categories of intercept). Agencies can apply to each other for access to the information stored on each others’ databases. A New Zealand intelligence agent explained that “The agencies can all apply for numbers on each other’s Dictionaries. The hardest to deal with are the Americans…[There are] more hoops to jump through, unless it is in their interest, in which case they’ll do it for you.”

Voice recognition software now makes it possible for key words to be recognized in a stream of conversation. Applying the methodology described above, it is possible to intercept and “read” hundreds of millions of telephone conversations on a daily basis, and to flag those which match on key words. Also, improvements in computer processing speeds and storage capacity make it possible to store massive quantities of information with very low overhead. Campbell and Hager wrote their accounts of ECHELON in the late 1980s and the mid 1990s respectively; any understanding of ECHELON’s current capacities must take these (and other) technological advances into consideration. Improvements in hardware and software also make it possible to perform more and more work in “real time” – this means that more and more data can be analyzed by ECHELON without delay, as it is transmitted across satellite uplinks and across microwave networks (see below). Thus, the above-mentioned capabilities have almost certainly been surpassed, and ECHELON is almost certainly capable of doing a great deal more than is discussed in this article.

What follows is a brief description of some of the hardware used by the ECHELON system. The reader should bear in mind that most of this material was released into the public domain by reporters Campbell and Hager in the late 1980s and the mid 1990s, and that the advent and widespread usage of fibre optic cables has changed the face of international communications entirely. When this material was written, satellites were used for almost all point-to-point applications (telephone networks, Internet networks, etc.). Since this material was written, there has been a marked shift away from satellites to fibre optic transmission.

A ring of international telecommunications satellites (Intelsats) used by the telephone companies of most nations circles the world. The satellites in this ring are all geostationary (each satellite remains directly above the same point on the surface of the planet at all times, day and night), and each satellite serves as a relay station for hundreds of thousands of simultaneous telephone calls, fax transmissions, text messages, teletypes, and emails. The first component of ECHELON consists of five UKUSA stations have been assigned to intercept all traffic flowing through the Intelsats. These stations have large satellite dishes that intercept and concentrate signals transmitted by the Intelsat satellites.

An NSA station at Sugar Grove, located about 250 km southwest of Washington, DC, in the mountains of West Virginia, covers Atlantic Intelsats transmitting down towards North and South America.

Another NSA station is inside the US Army’s Yakima Firing Center; its satellite dishes point out towards the Pacific Intelsats and to the east. This station is located in desert country between the Saddle Mountains and Rattlesnake Hills.

The British GCHQ station is perched on the top of high cliffs above the sea at Morwenstow in Cornwall. Its satellite dishes point out towards Intelsats above the Atlantic, Europe, and the Indian Ocean.

New Zealand provides a station at Waihopai, and Australia provides a station at Geraldton, West Australia. These stations intercept Pacific Intelsat communications that cannot be intercepted by the station at Yakima Firing Center.

Each of the stations’ Dictionary computers is assigned a code name to distinguish it from the other stations in the ECHELON network. The Yakima NSA station has the COWBOY Dictionary, whereas the GCSB station at Waihopai has the FLINTLOCK Dictionary.

Whenever a message is intercepted and forwarded to the headquarters of the relevant nation’s agency, these code names are inserted at the beginning of the message, to enable the receiving agency to identify the station at which the intercept occurred.

Many messages (telephone calls, emails, fax transmissions, text messages, etc.) are not transmitted by the Intelsats. A second major component of ECHELON consists of at least another five stations, which target data processed by Russian and other regional communications satellites. These stations are Menwith Hill in northern England; Shoal Bay, outside Darwin in northern Australia (this station targets Indonesian satellites); Leitrim, just south of Ottawa in Canada (which targets Latin-American satellites); Bad Aibling, in Germany; and Misawa in northern Japan.

The role of satellites in the transmission of point-to-point voice and data communications has largely been supplanted by fibre optics (although satellites are still used by point-to-multipoint applications, such as video transmissions). As of 2006, about 99 per cent of all long-distance voice and data traffic was carried over fibre optics. Massive quantities of personal, business, and government communications data are transmitted by a combination of heavy cables (including fibre optics) laid across seabeds under the oceans, and by microwave networks over land. Microwave networks consist of chains of microwave towers, which relay messages from hilltop to hilltop across the countryside (adjacent towers are always in the line of sight). These towers are typically about 25 miles apart. These systems are particularly vulnerable to interception at the interface between the cables and the microwave system (where the cables emerge); anywhere where switching occurs represents a potential target for the interception of all traffic flowing through that medium. These networks are therefore prime targets for the interception of domestic communications.

Interception of radio and satellite communications requires large antennae and dishes; because these are difficult to conceal from the public, this part of ECHELON is reasonably well documented (e.g. the GCHQ station at Morwenstow in Cornwall is visible and therefore relatively well understood). The station at Menwith Hill contains about 30 “giant golf ball” radomes (antennae shielded by the elements); as a practical matter, these cannot be hidden from the people. However, very little equipment is required in order to intercept transmissions that pass across the countryside, along a network of microwave towers. It is also very easy to run an illegally-placed cable from the legitimate network to an anonymous building.

Nicky Hager has documented the inner working of ECHELON with a degree of precision unmatched by other accounts. On the day that his book arrived at the book stores (in 1996), the intelligence bureaucrats in New Zealand met with the Prime Minister of New Zealand to discuss whether or not it was possible to prevent its distribution; they eventually concluded that the political costs of suppressing this book were too high (and their efforts would probably have been ineffectual, given the rapid pace at which encryption has become available to ordinary men and women).

One way of circumventing ECHELON is by encrypting sensitive communications. As mentioned earlier in this article, encryption makes it possible for the sender of a data stream to render the data stream unintelligible until the recipient decrypts the stream. However, the NSA specializes in performing and breaking the most complex encryption anywhere in the world, to protect state secrets and to spy on the secrets of hostile entities. In an ironic twist, efforts to prevent military grade encryption from falling into the hands of ordinary men and women have failed, as a direct result of the open-ended nature of the Internet. Once a product has been made available on the Internet, it is virtually impossible to withdraw that product from circulation. (Clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals learned this to their dismay when the Rorschach Inkblot test was leaked to the Internet in 2004, enabling people to “coach” themselves on this test before taking it for legal purposes (in custody disputes, in screening programs within the criminal justice system, etc.)) The subject of encryption will be discussed in another article.

It is clear that ECHELON poses a very serious risk to the civil liberties of all men and women. Through intelligence sharing, it is possible for the government to spy on its own citizens, and to read the private correspondence of individuals, businesses, and government entities. A report published by the European Parliament in February 2000 alleges that ECHELON twice helped US companies gain a commercial advantage over European firms; Campbell has accused the US Department of Commerce of beating off Japanese and European commercial opposition with the help of ECHELON.

It is reasonable to assume that ECHELON intercepts and listens to every telephone call, email, fax transmission, video transmission, teletype transmission, etc. and that the power of this system will only increase (and increase dramatically) with the passage of time.

We now live in a surveillance society, in which the government is able to track every move we make. Future articles will deal with Automated Number Plate recognition (ANPR), closed-circuit TV, and other developments that have the potential to strip innocent men and women of every vestige of privacy. US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, dissenting in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928) observed the following:

"Subtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the Government. Discovery and invention have made it possible for the Government, by means far more effective than stretching upon the rack, to obtain disclosure in court of what is whispered in the closet. Moreover, "in the application of a constitution, our contemplation cannot be only of what has, been but of what may be." The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions. "That places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer" was said by James Otis of much lesser intrusions than these..."

Justice Brandeis then asked, rhetorically, "Can it be that the Constitution affords no protection against such invasions of individual security?"

Fortunately, the US Supreme Court has been reasonably consistent and reasonably generous in terms of the manner in which it has protected the marvellous new medium we call the Internet, affording communications on the Internet the same degree of constitutional protection as is afforded the traditional, printed word. But what of nations that lack a written constitution (such as the UK)? It is in the nature of governments to seek power, but never to relinquish power. How will such societies adapt to changes in technology, and to tools such as ECHELON?

These questions are not academic. We must never relinquish the one right that Justice Brandeis described as "the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men."

This is -- the right to be let alone.


Comments 7 comments

Neil Horton profile image

Neil Horton 4 years ago from Greenwood, Arkansas

This is perhaps the most concise narrative of the Echelon system I have yet to read. Very well written.

ronbes profile image

ronbes 4 years ago from China


An excellent Hub about Echelon. I am new to the Hub world but as an ex military man I am hoping to write some interesting Hubs about the Special Forces and the Intelligence world, SIS (MI6) etc.

I would appreciate any comments and help and advice that you can give.


philipcfromnyc profile image

philipcfromnyc 3 years ago from Queens, NY Author

Thank you for your kind words! I am still very interested in this clandestine spy system, and any input you could provide would be most welcome!


Kevin Fenning profile image

Kevin Fenning 3 years ago from Philadelphia PA

Good info!


bwinwright profile image

bwinwright 23 months ago from MJarietta, Georgia

Thanks for the excellent article.

MGS 12 months ago

Mike and the Massive cannot express their disgust for the prohibition for the illegal distribution of high grade refer. They track our every move; all over the world.

Gopher 11 months ago

Used by the someone to test these implants and its torture they think it's nothing but really how much pain u endorse they will never know. Missing work to take hours u made away from you by keeping u in bed really frustrating. For years :(

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